I am a mother to five children, all of whom I breast-fed, one after the other, for an uninterrupted grand total of 13 years and three months. But once upon a time, I was pregnant with my first baby. At a checkup I asked my midwife to examine my engorged breasts. Yellow liquid kept leaking out, hardening over my nipples like husks.
“It’s just colostrum,” she said. “Liquid gold.”
My former B-cup — now a generous D-cup — was a pouch filled with magic. After asking all the right questions about breast-feeding, I blurted out, because I really wondered, “Can women with breast implants nurse their babies?”
“The kinds of women getting boob jobs aren’t the kinds of women breast-feeding their babies,” my husband said, and my midwife agreed.
We were at the Madison Birth Center, the first free-standing nationally accredited facility of its kind in Wisconsin. I was embarking on natural childbirth. Epidurals were not provided at the Madison Birth Center, and I was lucky to eventually birth five babies without so much as Tylenol, a point of pride, except that “natural mother” became a tough honor to maintain.
I used my own nipple, instead of a NUK, to pacify my co-sleeping babies. I wore them in a Moby wrap and subscribed to attachment parenting. My own daughter nicknamed me Mother Nature.
But I flunked other tests. I diapered with disposables, plied my children with “fruit” snacks and Cheetos, and appeased them with YouTube. I wasn’t an all-natural mother, but then who on Earth was I?
My mixed allegiances were never as clear as when I studied my body. I was bewitched by the miracle of reproduction, but there’s always an aftertaste. Like, five postpartum recoveries later, my stomach looked so pinched and doughy. Motherhood had stretched my taut skin into a wrinkled flap.
After my last baby celebrated his first birthday, I took up Pilates and running, quickly shedding 25 pounds. Although I was proud of my efforts, I now glimpsed a double-whammy in the mirror. My stomach sagged more than ever.
My stretched-out skin didn’t show the results of my newfound labor. If anything, my abdomen looked worse! I vowed never to wear a bikini again. And what did it matter — I was the kind of woman who acquiesced to nature, wasn’t I? I was also committed to teaching my girls, now 10 and 6, to embrace their natural beauty. When my husband nonchalantly told me about a medical spa that housed a plastic surgery practice, I initially dismissed him.
Plastic surgery was for the rich and famous or people who needed it to repair birth defects or injuries, or to mitigate the symptoms of body dysmorphic disorder. It wasn’t for “natural mothers” like me. Did moms who’d endured the more commonplace strains of pregnancy and childbirth even qualify?
“Apparently a lot of women get mommy makeovers,” my husband offered. A revolving door of glamorous moms, the plastics from “Mean Girls” but married and with children, flashed into my brain and triggered my curiosity. Could I possibly be one of them?
Beneath a half-moon cutout of Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam” — not Eve — the practice leads its website with this obvious gem: “You wouldn’t trade your children for the world, but wouldn’t it be nice to capture parts of your pre-pregnancy figure?” Yes, it certainly would be nice, but was I willing to further complicate my already mixed status?
If so, perhaps I wasn’t the only one. In 2016, surgeons certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery performed nearly 16 million cosmetic procedures, a 115 percent increase in plastic surgery from 2000, commonly among mothers.
Before leaving home for my $80 consultation, I studied myself in the mirror. I imagined surgery as a simple job, a quick whip stitch to a loose hem.
Upon arriving at the center, though, I realized I’d made a mistake. Was this a surgical center or a five-star restaurant? The “menu of services” boasted everything from a “neck lift” (appetizers) to “vaginal rejuvenation” (dessert with an aperitif). Two synthetically attractive receptionists looked like they’d been convulsed with electroshock therapy. Every line on their matching faces was rattled flat.
My feelings of regret darkened when I was called to an examining room. Mood lighting dulled the small furnished chamber where I was instructed to change from street clothes to gown. The doctor finally knocked to enter, with a female associate on his heels, ready to jot notes on a laptop.
“What brings you here today?” he asked.
“Well, I’ve been pregnant five times, and now I’ve lost weight.” I pinched myself and gestured toward my imperfect body in the full-length mirror.
“Ah, yes,” he told me. “You have a postpartum pouch.” I dropped the robe, and he began drafting a new blueprint on my skin with a felt-tip pen. This reconstruction artist mapped a better version of me onto me, but all I heard was, “Here’s the short loin; here’s the flank.” In my mind, he was more Cutts the Butcher than Michelangelo.
Although I hadn’t mentioned my breasts, he noted their lack of elasticity. He lifted, pleated and etched circles around my areolae. Although a mastopexy would not guarantee symmetry, my nipples — yanked on for 13 years and three months — might be perky again.
Afterward in the assistant’s office, silicone sacs lay scattered across the desk like packages of freeze-dried food, breasts a la carte. If I opted for the tummy tuck and breast lift, I’d get a discount of 15 percent.
The round-bosomed woman assured me, “It’s totally worth it.” As she reviewed the costs for elaborate nips and tucks I knew I couldn’t afford, I realized I was fortunate never to have experienced surgery under duress — no C-section, no episiotomy, no final jerk of the forceps. Who did I think I was now, potentially electing to go under the knife? According to my information packet, I’d have to use something called the Jackson-Pratt drain to pump blood and pus away from the wound post-op. My presence at the center seemed suddenly and blatantly absurd. Sometimes, at the very least, epiphanies are cheap.
“Besides,” I told her. “I’m still breast-feeding, and I wouldn’t want to damage my milk ducts.”
“Oh, yes,” she said. “You’d definitely want to wait until you were done breast-feeding.” I didn’t know yet I’d breast-feed another three years, officially weaning my youngest on the eve of 4-year-old kindergarten.
After my $80 consultation, my imperfect skin tone seemed smoother. Visiting the plastic surgeon had magically sealed me off from self-loathing, and without spending the proposed $10,000, my skin eventually started to tighten up on its own. I even bought a new bikini.
As it turned out, the label I gave myself didn’t fit so well. Do any, really? I naturally birthed my babies, but I also entertained plastic repairs. Although I never returned to the center, I figured out that most of us are modern Renaissance women — schooled in a diversity of viewpoints, juggling our mismatched desires.
Maybe after raising my children, I’ll add to my repertoire, study the masters, and take up sculpture, molding women’s bodies as I see mine: teardrop breasts still listing to the tune of my babies’ lips. In lieu of silicone, I vow to use clay — eco-friendly, biodynamic and 100 percent all-natural.
Laura Jean Baker is the author of “The Motherhood Affidavits: A Memoir.” Baker teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, where she lives with her husband and five children.
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